Wednesday, December 17, 2014

How To Avoid Being a Disciple, Part 2 - Refuse a Theology of Difficult Things

It is nearly axiomatic in the life of Christians that their greatest struggles with faith come in times of stress and difficulty. Financial pressures squeeze families. Serious illnesses come out of nowhere and throw every expectation and hope out the window. Betrayal pulls the rug out from underneath our relationships.  And on the story goes. Struggles of every kind create unexpected bends in the river and create tension for us, tensions between what we expected to happen, what we hope will happen, what we expect of God in our lives, and who we think God really is.

To paraphrase a popular bumper sticker, all kinds of awful things happen. This is the human experience, and as such, it needs to be dealt with in ways that make sense of both our experience and our faith. If we believe in a sovereign God, we need to come to terms with his plan and power and the fact that things in our lives often do not go the way we expect them to. On the whole, however, we have failed at this task. We have simply not taken enough time on the "street level" of Christian lives to develop a theology of difficult things - an understanding that God is still good and great even when we suffer. And the failure to do so is more than a theological oversight, it is another way in which we avoid discipleship.

If we are unable to develop a clear and faithful understanding of God in the most trying times of life, we will find ourselves tossed and turned by even the slightest of winds. It will not necessarily be the gale-force gusts that topple our faith, it may be one contrary breeze. There is no surer way to destroy the future faith of a young believer than to insinuate that if they follow Jesus everything will go well for them. If we do not deepen our comprehension of God beyond believing in his greatness and goodness when "all is well," we will end up with a shallow projection of ourselves and our wishes on the sky, resulting in us following ourselves and not God. Our default theology is never who God actually is, but who we wish him to be.

At the very least, the disciple must learn where they stand in the God-to-human gamut of power. God is God, I am not and can never be. God is, by his very nature, necessarily good and right. I am, by my very nature, small in power and rife with error. So the disciple learns to respond to God's very existence and his call with confident abandon. The three Hebrew children about to be thrown into Nebuchadnezzar's famous fiery furnace understood this well. They refused to bow down to the pagan idol because they knew who truly was God. At the moment of their peril they said, "Our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up" (Daniel 3:17-18).  In another situation, not leading to potential death but to a radical change in the rest of her life, a young girl also saw what this meant for her. When the angel Gabriel told Mary that as a virgin she would give birth to her long-awaited Messiah, and that her older cousin was also surprisingly pregnant, she replied, "Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word" (Luke 1:38).


If the follower of Jesus Christ gains an understanding of the character and power of God, they become able to follow him in the most complicated of times. This is not to say it will be easy - that would, in fact, contradict my entire point. The three Hebrew children were actually thrown into the fiery furnace and Mary watched her son be executed by the Romans. But if a Christian fails or refuses to come to terms with their sovereign and good God in the midst of trials, in the end they will follow their feelings instead. It is a very quick way to avoid being a disciple.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Preach, Live, And Let God Do What He Can Do

“Preach the Word, live in the Kingdom, leave the results to God.” Dallas Willard


I have now heard Dallas Willard say this in a couple of contexts, and I think it is a worthwhile way to think about the vocation of the pastor. As I have argued in the past, I am not sure we have a good handle on a biblical model of pastoring, so hearing from those who have something different to say is valuable to us.

Preach the Word
How could we disagree with this? Yet, my interaction with many churches and pastors tells me that on most Sunday mornings Scripture plays a supporting role at best. Our church supports a lot of missionaries and I often get to preach to people who have traveled throughout the English speaking world and experienced all kinds of churches. After one Sunday morning in which my text came from John 5, the missionary guest said that he could not remember the last time he heard a sermon on God. What does that mean? Can it be that over several years of itineration he had literally not heard (that he could remember) a sermon whose topic was the character and nature of God? Can this be representative of the American church?

If I did not preach from Scripture, I do not know what on earth I would preach from. Does this mean I need to preach verse-by-verse every single week? Not necessarily, but it does mean that my controlling text and set of principles comes from Scripture no matter how I speak.

Live In The Kingdom
The philosopher Aristotle said there were three pillars to effective public speaking: ethos, pathos, and logos. Logos is the logic of your arguments, pathos is your emotional connection with the audience, and ethos is the character or integrity of the speaker. Are you trustworthy? Does your lifestyle somehow backup what you are saying about life?

While striving to avoid some kind of simplistic legalism, it can be reasonably expected that pastors live genuine lives of Christ-likeness. This is not some kind of moralism, but a kingdom possibility. Christ offers us life in the presence and power of the one true God and gave the gift of the third member of the Trinity so that we might actually be able to do that. We say Christ is Lord, but do we live as if he reigns in our lives? The people in our churches have dozens of examples of life outside of the kingdom of God, why not give them at least one example of life within it?

Leave the Results to God
Here is where we may hit the most interference with conventional wisdom. It is either stated or assumed that pastors work to grow the numbers and budgets of their churches. And while health may very well result in that, Willard is clear that this ought not to be the primary goal of ministry. I have said for years that the only thing I am in control of is my obedience to what God has called me to do. I am not called to be a controller or manipulator or herder of people. And if I am not an expert marketer of my skills or church, I am still not called to attach my worth or usefulness before God in terms of “butts and bucks.”

Timothy Keller in his book, Center Church, has challenged me on this. His argument is that we are called to be both faithful and fruitful. At least, we need to strive to be fruitful. And he is right, but in the end his point about fruitfulness may boil down to being faithful to the drive of the Gospel to tell as many people as possible.


But in the end, I think Willard is right. God is the shepherd of human souls, not me. He is the Superintended of our services and gatherings, not me. The Holy Spirit is our guide into truth and toward Jesus Christ, I am only (hopefully) an obedient and useful guide to others along the way.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

How To Avoid Being a Disciple, Part 1

To be a disciple is to follow Jesus Christ. There is no discipleship without following Christ in all he teaches us to obey and in how we live our lives under God. There is, however, a form of the Christian life without discipleship, which is a life without Christ (2 Timothy 3:5). The call to follow Christ goes out to everyone, but not even all those who answer the call in the beginning follow through as disciples.

To follow someone is to allow them to be your teacher and begin take on the character of their life, and in the case of Christ it is to also take on the power of his life. In fact, we become like what we follow no matter whom or what it is. The Psalmist tells us about this in the context of idols by saying, “those who make them become like them; so do all who trust in them” (Psalm 115:8). So, over time, a mark of the disciple is how different they become from the world and the idols around them. Christ is the one true God, so nobody and nothing else offers us the life that Christ does. People may follow many different idols in this world, but they all end up looking very much the same. The people who stick out as different are the followers of Jesus Christ.

But the minute we say that, we struggle to think of the differences between Christians and the others around them. Christianity without discipleship makes little to no difference in a life at all. After all, how could it? This form of belief is nothing more than lip-service without any intent to allow faith in Christ to sink deeper than some kind of proclamation. As the prophet put it so memorably, “they honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me” (Is. 29:13). So, what are the hallmarks of a Christian proclamation without the difference discipleship makes?

Christianity without adherence to the fundamentals of the faith will create a life that is indistinguishable from a non-Christian life. It may seem odd to some that we begin talking about a different life by talking about what we believe, but our lives are inevitably the result of our most deeply held beliefs. If you want to know what a person truly believes about an issue, do not put stock in what they say, rather, pay attention to what they do. Behavior inevitably betrays belief, and our beliefs turn us into who we become. It makes a difference whether you believe God created the universe and you or not. You will live differently if you believe Jesus is God in flesh reconciling the world to himself. Your priorities will be different if you believe Jesus is worth obeying and he tells you to make disciples of every nation teaching people to obey everything he tells us to do. You will be a very different kind of person if you really believe that people who are persecuted for righteousness are blessed. And the list could go on.

Why would a Christian not hold to the essentials of their faith? There are probably as many answers to that question as there are nominal Christians, but I think at least two general reasons account for most of the failure of discipleship. First, many Christians are not taught what they believe, and they are not intimate enough with the Word of God to learn it on their own. Their churches and pastors fail them. Their TV watching habits fail them. Their lack of reading and comprehension skills fail them. Whatever the case, the warp and woof of their doctrine has not been made clear and desirable to them, so they go merrily along their way, none the wiser.  Secondly, to believe the things Christ teaches us to believe is to – by very definition – stick out. The follower of Christ learns how to believe that forgiveness is more powerful than vengeance and that humility is greater than the exertion of power. These values, and many more like them, are not at all like the world around us. In cultures where the grass of cultural convention is mowed pretty often and people are told to look and believe the same, Christians are like fast-growing weeds that simply cannot be leveled off for long. But, being that weed, the Christian must get used to getting mowed from time to time.


Disciples must know what they believe as followers of Jesus Christ and strive to have those beliefs reflect the truth as closely as possible. To paraphrase Dorothy Sayers, the drama of your life is wrapped up in the power of your doctrine. Otherwise you will find yourself in an inevitable drift of both belief and behavior toward the way the world sees and does things. You will be indistinguishable. 

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

The Disciple - It Is All True

I have been reflecting for a long time on what it means to really follow Christ in our changing world. What does discipleship look like when it really takes hold of a life? I believe that discipleship is the priority in the Christian life, so why is it so important? (Yup, I said, "the priority.")

I'll begin here with a few thoughts about what is probably the bottom line, the ultimate reason. It is true.

The whole story is true. Every bit of it really is the way God said it is. He really did create the universe and place humans created in his image in it to tend to it and be in relationship with him. He really did reveal himself. He really did come in person of Jesus Christ, born of a virgin, lived the sinless life, willingly died on the cross, conquered death and walked out of the grave, ascended into heaven, and sent the Holy Spirit.

Every promise Christ spoke about the reality and power of the Kingdom of God is real. None of it is bubbles and smoke. None of it is intended for only the super-spiritual. All of it is for whosoever will.

The uncomfortable things spoken about the brokenness of the human condition by God are all unavoidably true. It has been said that the doctrine of original sin is the most unlikeable of Christian doctrines, but also the most obvious. Humanity, without Christ, is hopeless - literally.

Now the reason this is an answer to the question of why we ought to be disciples, is that humans are conditioned to believe what is true. It is in our very nature to seek out what is true about ourselves and the world around us. Reality is unwavering and we must, in the end, live according to its terms. This is so ingrained within the human nature that psychology has at least a handful of diagnoses for people who refuse to deal with what is real and true.

We actually live as if 2+2 really does equal 4. Whether we acknowledge it or not we live according to the laws of reason. Human communication would be nearly impossible otherwise. We are ultimately uninterested in false theories of gravity and chemistry because we know they are only useful as curiosities or as bad ideas that help us understand the goodness of the true theories.

The same is true between people. Unless we have reason to believe otherwise, we assume, within reason, that people tell us the truth. If you don't believe me, try going through a day believing everything everyone says to you is a deliberate lie. You will not get far. Even when we interact with strangers, we are built to tell and believe the truth.


There is no good reason not to apply this same standard to ultimate things - to the things of God, life, and salvation. We live best in reality when we are in accord with it, and if God created all things then, we live best when we live in accord with that God. And discipleship is learning to live in accord with God and his creation. When we learn to follow Jesus Christ in his way of life, we are learning to think and act the way God did when he was here on earth in human flesh. Truth himself came and walked among us (John 1:14, 14:6), now we follow.

Saturday, December 06, 2014

Can Christmas Still Be True?


It is becoming one of our new Christmas traditions – well-funded atheist organizations spreading holiday cheer through billboard campaigns like this one declaring the Christian faith to be a fairy-tale. A significant part of the atheist strategy right now is to throw around phrases like “fairy-tale” without much argument but a lot of emotion and condescension. It is assumed that the Christian faith is nothing more than something made up for children and simple moralizing like an Alice in Wonderland or Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Once a person matures they learn that what they were taught was simple and hilariously false. It is time to move on. At least, that is how the atheist story goes.

Given how the term is so lightly and accusingly used in these kinds of campaigns, I wonder if anyone involved has done their homework. I am inclined to say they have not. “Fairy-tale” in this kind of use is a slur, not an accurate portrayal of a piece of literature, such as the Bible. Fairy-tale is a well documented and seriously studied literary category, so surely someone has paid attention to it and compared it with the Christian story. One of the differences between fairy-tales and the Christian faith that is simple to see if someone takes the time to see it is the historical rootedness of the Christian story. These were real people, real events, and real effects of the divine in our world. Fairy-tales are not. At even a cursory glance, the charge of “fairy-tale” simultaneously falls flat as untrue and diminishes the credibility of those who make the charge. If they want to call the Christian faith a fairy-tale, at least they could do a little bit of work.

There are a few who have made their careers studying what we lightly call fairy-tales. Some of them became convinced of the truth of the Christian faith. One man even called it the fairy-tale that came true. C.S. Lewis’ academic career and writings, which long outlasted his tenure, are not well known among evangelicals, but deal extensively with Medieval literature, mythology, and fairy-tales. One of the western world’s leading experts on what fairy-tales actually are came in contact with Christianity and became convinced of its truth.   

Part of the beauty and power of the Christmas season is that we celebrate the moment when divine truth and Being entered human history to make God known and life with him possible. Christmas endures all the onslaughts of consumerism and atheism because it is true. The truth may sometime lie beneath a pile of slurs and propaganda, but it remains. Christ came to earth, was born of a virgin, lived a sinless life, willingly died on the cross, and then defeated death.


And it is shockingly true that we can still become a part of the Christmas story when we walk and live in Jesus Christ.

Monday, November 24, 2014

The Word of God is Sharper than any Two-Step Self-Help Program

I watched a service last night from a large mid-western church. I was appalled enough to actually feel like punching somebody in the face. I rarely feel like punching someone in the face, but Nehemiah did (Nehemiah 13:25), and I did, so let me explain why.

As soon as I saw the sermon series was on how to be happy as a Christian, my hackles were up. The "text" for the sermon was a single verse read very quickly and undoubtedly found in an online word search for "happy." The text was promptly dropped. The other passages referred to in the sermon were either mentioned and not read, or utterly abused. The amount of eisegesis was astounding. A couple of theological concepts were raised, but used in an overtly self-serving and flatly heretical way. Jesus did not shed his blood on the cross so that you could live a stress-free life. God's judgment does not precede his mercy (or we would all be gone, including this "pastor"). The points in the sermon were all lifted from local daytime talk shows in the segments when Dr. HelpMeGetSkinny arrives and tells you how to handle your caloric intake during the holidays. I am not joking - the sermon  gave the earth-shaking advice that you ought to drink more water, exercise, and control your portions. Then the bulk of the sermon time was devoted to C-grade stand-up comedy.

I have two pieces of advice.

First, if you attended that church or one like it over the past weekend, you need to run away as quickly as you can. If you hear sermons like this from week to week you are actually being led away from Christ and his grace, not brought closer to him. You are being taught how to be more like the world, not like Christ. And if you think that what I described is a Christian sermon and is the kind of thing the Bible actually teaches the people of God, then I suggest you save your tithe, stay home, and just watch TV. You will get the same ideas with better production value and you don't need to send in your money.

Second, if you preached this sermon over the past weekend, shame on you. You need a run-in with a Jeremiah or a Nehemiah. You need someone to pronounce "false prophet" over your YouTube and Vimeo accounts. You abused Holy Writ and shamed the Sacred Desk. You took what precious little time you have with the people who attend your church and flushed it down the toilet. Your shallow Bible-mangling sermons are part of the reason the evangelical church is not taken seriously in our culture. How could it be, when you are incapable or unwilling to plumb the depths of God's Word and the sacred task of preaching, and connect the Word of God to the lives of people?

You, pastor, have at your disposal the truths and power that once turned the world upside down and you have settled for lukewarm get-alongism. The Word of God, if you can learn how to wield it, is a sword sharper than any two-step diet program.

The vocation of pastor is serious stuff. The task of preaching should never be taken lightly. Pastor, you need to either relearn or learn for the first time how to handle Scripture well. Then you need to learn again how to communicate to people the depths and the riches of something that actually has the power to transform lives.

I pray the American church learns how to leave behind this crass and meaningless consumerism. I am not holding my breath.




Friday, November 14, 2014

Social Activism vs. the Local Church

“For many today it is far easier to be committed to social justice in South Africa, to the restoration of communities on the Gulf Shore following Katrina, to cleaning up from the devastating tornadoes of the Plains, or to fighting sexual trafficking in any country than it is to be committed to building community and establishing fellowship in one’s local church. I hate to put it this way, but I must: it is easier to do the former because it feels good,…Not only that, it is good and right and noble and loving and compassionate and just. It is more glamorous to do social activism because building a local church is hard….But local church is what Jesus came to build, so the local church’s mission shapes kingdom mission.”